The National Prohibition Cases: Supreme Court on Prohibition

The National Prohibition Cases were seven legal cases that challenged the constitutionality of National Prohibition  in 1920. They challenged the 18th Amendment, which established nation-wide prohibition. The National Prohibition Cases also challenged the law that enabled Prohibition to be enforced. That was the National Prohibition Act of 1919. It is commonly known as the Volstead Act.

The lead case was Rhode Island v. Palmer. Because they were similar, six other cases were grouped with it. They were heard together and decided together. There were a number of arguments, but the plaintiffs focused on what they considered procedural defects. They sought injunctions against the Volstead Act.

The decision was announced by Justice Willis Van Devanter on June 7, 1920. The vote was seven to two, upholding both the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act.

Wayne Wheeler  of the Anti-Saloon League, explained the plaintiff’s major contentions and the Court’s decisions point by point.

  • Plaintiffs contended that that the resolution submitting the 18th Amendment was invalid. It omitted the words ‘deemed it necessary,’ which are in the Constitution. The Court held that Congress ‘deemed it necessary’ or it wouldn’t have submitted the resolution.
  • Plaintiffs argued that the resolution was invalid because two-thirds of congressional members had not approved it. The Court held that only two-thirds of a quorum was needed.
  • Plaintiffs asserted that the Constitution requires a referendum in each state for ratification. The Court held that the Constitution only requires a state legislature or convention to approve ratification.
  • Plaintiffs maintained that because the words ‘˜intoxicating liquor’ were not in the Constitution, it was not possible to amend the document with reference to subject matter not in the Constitution. The Court rejected that theory. It did not explain its rationale for doing so.
  • Plaintiffs argued that the Amendment was not legally proposed and ratified. Therefore, it was not part of the Constitution. The Court rejected those arguments without explanation.
  • Plaintiffs asserted that the legislation adopted by Congress could not be imposed on a state without ratification by that state. This theory would enable states to remain wet and thwart the purpose of the Amendment. The Court rejected that theory.
  • Plaintiffs argued that the Amendment did not apply to alcoholic beverages made before it went into effect. The Court rejection that argument without explanation.
  • Plaintiffs contended that in giving Congress and states concurrent power to enforce prohibition by appropriate laws, states could define intoxicating liquors differently. The Court held that the Volstead Act established the minimum standard. States could could lower the permissible alcohol content but not raise it.
national prohibition cases

Wayne Wheeler

Wheeler hailed the decision in the National Prohibition Cases. He and millions of others had worked for decades to achieve Prohibition. It was a beautiful dream. Wheeler said that Prohibition would endure as one of the greatest achievements of the ages.

National Prohibition was resoundingly  repealed in 1933.